I recently began reading some of the work of Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), and was intrigued to discover a formula for composing magical melodies in his notorious Magia Sexualis. Unfortunately the instructions, on pp.69-74 of the 1931 French first edition and pp. 41-44 of the 1987 English translation, are almost incoherent: obviously some sort of editorial error or misreading of Randolph’s manuscript occurred prior to publication, and since neither translator was a musician the instructions have remained somewhat opaque. I am not sure if these errors are corrected in Donald Traxler’s 2012 translation, but I am posting my own synopsis of his method for those who are curious.
It was a great pleasure to travel to Aberystwyth at the start of the month for the Listen to the Voice of Fire: Alchemy in Sound Art symposium at the National Library of Wales. The day was organised by Dafydd Roberts, of Our Glassie Azoth, and brought together a variety of academics, composers and musicians to explore diverse responses to the theme of alchemy and its relationship with sonic arts. Below are some thoughts on the day – along with a little digression into the music of Radulescu! You can also find photos of the event here.
Prior to proceedings, it was a delight to hang out with Electroscope (in this configuration John Cavanagh, Gayle Brogan and Ceylan Hay aka Bell Lungs), and also to unexpectedly encounter Johann Wlight, whose Gold of a Thousand Mournings, was one of my favourite Larkfall releases from ‘back in the day’. I am pleased to say that he is still making his music, and hope to be able to hear some more sometime soon…
Dafydd Roberts introduced the day, talking about his own interest in alchemy and noise music – as well as his PhD thesis on the work of ‘alchemistical philosopher’ Thomas Vaughan, aka Eugenius Philalethes. The idea of alchemy as the ‘phenomenology of revelation’ also came up, which caught my ear and gave me the title of this post. This segued into a precis of his essay Born out of Chaos [Academia.edu], which connects the aesthetics of Our Glassie Azoth to both the work of Louis and Bebe Barron and cybernetic theory. An interesting connection was also made between the description of alchemy as a ‘history of error’ and the fetishisation of ‘error’ as an aesthetic via databending and glitch music. This reminded me of Kim Cascone‘s attitude that errors somehow upset our reality by confounding our expectations, and can be used as potent jumping off points for creative exploration. The talk of databending also pointed toward sonification, which would be a recurrent theme for many artists over the course of the day, which I touched on as an alchemical idea here, and which Kristina Wolfe has also suggested manifests a sort of contemporary apophatic mysticism.
I am pleased to say that I will be participating in Aberystwyth University’s Listen to the Voice of Fire event on the 3rd of March at the National Library of Wales. There’s a pretty diverse range of musicians and academics involved – and tickets can be found here. I am pleased to say that Our Glassie Azoth are on the bill – and indeed, the whole event is organised by Mr. Glassie Azoth himself, Dafydd Roberts. OGA was a great inspiration to me during the early 2000s. Experimenting with an Amen, a split between OGA and side-project Alphane Moon is a particular favourite – especially the way it mixes alchemical imagery, drone and noise, interspersed with sweet, whispy Nick Drake-like miniatures.
Recently stories about StegIbiza have been cropping up on various newsfeeds of mine. StegIbiza is a proposed system for hiding morse code messages in minute fluctuations of tempo in dance music – the proposal is that a computer analysis of a track would be able to decipher the message, although whether this is dependable in practice is yet to be seen.
The practice of hiding secret messages in plain sight, within music, pictures or text, is known as steganography (secret writing) a term coined by, and historically bound up with, the 15th century abbot Trithemius and his Steganographia: a curious mixture of occultism and cryptography. This work was written 1500, but not published until 1606, and in the interim its reputation made it highly sought-after – John Dee’s own 1591 transcription survives in the National Library of Wales.
Recently, Layla mentioned how much she enjoyed the mellotron that permeates many of Julian Cope’s albums and live performances. One source suggests that this may also be same mellotron that is played by Thighpaulsandra on a number of Coil albums – certainly the mellotron is used to excellent effect on Astral Disaster, particularly on the visionary Sea Priestess:
This prompted me to revisit an idea that came up while we were working on the first Hawthonn album. Obviously the album explored themes surrounding Jhonn Balance’s resting place at Bassenthwaite, and the symbol of the hawthorn tree was particularly important. While exploring associations with the hawthorn, S.: of the Psychogeographical Commission mentioned that there was a legendary connection with Merlin. Continue reading
Some recent bits of news:
Andy Paciorek, illustrator and instigator of the Folk Horror Revival forum, has recently edited a 498-page book of writing and interviews around the idea of ‘folk horror’.
Contributors include Adam Scovell, John Coulthart (writing on David Rudkin), Sharron Kraus, Gary Lachman (on WIlson’s The Outsider, and also interviewed himself), Grey Malkin, Chris Lambert, and more. There are also interviews with Kim Newman, Philip Pullman, Drew Mulholland… so, if you like pagan things, landscapes, the uncanny et al, take a look. It’s quite cheap and any profits will be donated to environmental, wildlife and community projects undertaken by The Wildlife Trusts!
I have a piece included called The Haunted Fields of England: Diabolical Landscapes and the Genii Locorum, which uses the idea of the diabolisation of pagan landscape features to trace the development of the genius loci from semi-benevolent tutelar daimons of Antiquity, to the ghouls and monsters of the Anglo-Saxon imagination and the treasure-guarding demons of Medieval and Tudor magic!
Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in several editions between 1584 and 1665, has been a personal inspiration for a long time. Scot’s work is notorious for its sixteenth book, which is a compilation of magical materials, apparently compiled from the works of two cunning-men, ‘T.R.’ and John Cokars. Scot intended to present these materials as a way to confute the practice of conjuration, and also to draw parallels between magical and ‘popish conjurations’ of Catholic ritual. However, in doing so he provided many a would-be conjurer with all the materials they required to begin working magic: it’s no surprise that many manuscripts, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the work of both learned and less well educated scribes, contain interpolations from the work of Scot.
The materials that Scot presents might at first seem obscure or idiosyncratic to modern readers whose knowledge was, until relatively recently, often informed by works such as Waite’s Book of Black Magic, which broadly ignore collections of English ‘experiments’ in magic, in favour of Continental publications. Yet it is evident, after examining various manuscripts and handbooks of English magicians, that what Scot presented was broadly representative of the ‘tradition’ of magic as it was practiced in England during the 16th century. Spirit names like Bealphares and Sibylia, well known to readers of Scot, crop up in works such as the Folger ‘Book of Magic’ [pdf buy], with alarming regularity.
This Friday I will be joining Yvonne Salmon and James Riley in the Alchemical Landscape panel at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK and Ireland (ASLE-UKI) biennial conference in Cambridge. You can read the abstract below, but I’d like to use this post to explore some tangential ideas via a stream-of-consciousness collage of quotes.
The Bright Sound Behind the Sound: Real-World Music, Symbolic Discourse and the Foregrounding of Imagination
This paper responds to a recent article by American sound artist Kim Cascone in which he asserts that the recent trend for the presentation of environmental recordings as ‘sonic art’ is crucially lacking in some form of ‘soul’ or vitality. Cascone suggests that it is the responsibility of an artist working with real-world sounds to enter a more imaginative engagement than precedents within the field (and within the wider field of sonic arts in general) have historically presented. The paper briefly explores historical impulse to deprecate the importance of imagination, along with the imaginative implications of discourse around what Norman calls ‘real-world music’. From here, we explore the relationship between imagination and sound in two pieces of sonic art and argue that one response to Cascone’s call for an imaginative turn can be found within the idea of the symbol as codified in Romantic and ‘traditional’ poetic discourse (after Kathleen Raine). The paper explores the way in which a cultivation of an ‘imaginative perception’ can be used to define, reveal or elucidate such symbols in a compositional context and relates the creative and interpretive use of ‘sound-symbols’ to both Voss’ methodology of the imagination (2009) and Thomas’ multidimensional spectrum of imagination (2014).
Upon first hearing the news about Ben Chasny’s Hexadic System and album, one of the aspects that most interested me was the connection between the Hexadic System and the area of ‘speculative music‘, which is one of the perennial concerns of this blog. This post is a companion to the previous post on the practical aspects of the Hexadic System, and will look more closely at the relationship between the Hexadic System, atonality and ‘speculative music’. It’s a long read, but hopefully worthwhile for those interested in such things!
I. Speculative Music, Past and Present
In its most exoteric (outer, superficial) form, speculative music was traditionally concerned with matters such as tuning, temperament and rhythm: it was the theoretical side of music, opposed to the practice of playing and composing. However, within the neoplatonic worldview that dominated the Western world prior to the Enlightenment, such matters – dealing as they did with ratio and number – were inextricably associated with esoteric doctrines, primarily that of the music of the spheres: some commentators suggesting that the planets, like the notes in a musical scale, were distributed according to similarly simple, harmonic ratios. Given the supposition by esotericists that the universe is relational – as Agrippa had it spanning three worlds: the sublunar, celestial and divine, or supra-celestial – the ratios inherent in the planetary music would have sympathies with that which flows from the ‘divine’ world of souls and spiritual essences beyond them, and that which happens on earth below them. As John Dowland wrote in the high-minded and loftily poetic style of the age: “the whole frame of Nature, is nothing but Harmonie, as wel in soules, as bodies.”
I was intrigued when I discovered that Ben Chasny, of Six Organs of Admittance, had used a system of indeterminate composition to write material for his new album, Hexadic, working with the arising materials in the idiom of sprawling, improvisatory psychedelic rock, which evokes parallels with Mainliner, his earlier Comets on Fire freakouts, the grimy ‘tape muck’ of Ashtray Navigations and the distorted, dissonant metal of groups like SunnO))) and Khanate. There are also occasional forays into calmer territories on tracks like the beautiful Hesitant Grand Light and Guild, and the moody, ever-descending Future Verbs.
Although Ben has hitherto spanned a wide-range of styles and genres in his music-making, I still thought it was a brave decision to embrace such approaches so completely: the inevitability is alienating one’s more conservative ‘fans’, while trying to develop as an artist and pursue the aspects of music making that are most vital and interesting to oneself. I still think that the experiments in atonality initiated by composers such as Schoenberg and Hauer in the early 20th century have a lot more mileage in them, and this brilliant article by Philip Clarke really highlights the issues regarding the tensions between established and ‘new tonalities’:
Here’s the challenge. We need to be open to hearing this new tonality. It isn’t going to sound like the old tonality, and that’s fine – too much whining about new music is based on little more than ‘it doesn’t resemble the music I already like’. As mainstream pop, and what continues to pass for ‘New Music’, uses less tonality more cynically, there’s space for a new breed of composer interested in using more tonality, more pointedly to fill that gaping vacuum. Composers today are repeatedly pounced on because – allegedly – they lack relevance to the wider world. And thus a new, noble cause is born – creating an expressively pungent, provocative, culturally subversive tonality that rubs lamestream noses in their own mediocrity. Does that aspiration strike a chord?